The symphony of anger in Set It Off

The symphony of anger in Set It Off

Celebrating both Queen Latifah's birthday and a timeless classic, Oisakhose Aghomo looks back on Set It Off, and the  upholding and deconstructing femme fatale and bad woman archetypes derived from noir cinema.

In 1981, when Audre Lorde gave a keynote address at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Connecticut,  she said: “Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger. I say symphony rather than cacophony, because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive. And part of my anger is always libation for my fallen sisters.”

During a conversation with her lover Keith (Blair Underwood), about an hour into the Black noir cult classic Set It Off (1996), Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) asks him, “Do you feel free?” This question haunts the film as Stony, Cleo (Queen Latifah), Frankie (Vivica A Fox), and Tisane (Kimberly Elise) live within a “symphony of anger” in their fictional neighbourhood of Acorn Projects in the backdrop of a decaying metropolis, Los Angeles, trying their best to orchestrate an escape.

The symphony begins immediately in the opening scene, as Frankie Sutton is working as a teller in a bank when it gets robbed by Darnell, a man she knows from her neighbourhood. For Black audience members, the intense mental anguish she goes through is instinctively understood: watching a familiar panic in her eyes as she mentally plays out the consequences of engaging with Darnell as he robs the bank, sure that just her mere knowledge of him would cost her livelihood. And it does just that. 

After Darnell murders a customer right in front of her and is then dramatically killed by a security guard, Frankie is subject to intense questioning in a room filled with accusatory stares. As she is repeatedly asked, “What's the procedure when you're being robbed?” by Detective Strode (John C. McGinley), they assume she must also have something to do with the robbery. Frankie is subsequently unceremoniously fired while adorning the same clothes stained by the customer's blood. There is no attempt to comfort her, even in the most chauvinist sense, nor is there the pretence of care from anyone in the room. 

Set It Off, like its Black film noir peers of the ’90s, highlights the societal dynamics that fuel crime and comments on its politics. The film shows that these large systemic ills – racism, homophobia, sexism – require an inherent denial of the humanity of its victims as they are played out in the day-to-day. As much as society at large has allowed for policies that enable the discrimination and neglect of people at its margins, it is the individuals who are charged with carrying out the task. From Frankie’s boss to Detective Strode, the jarring reality for these women – as it is for many Black women – is that they will be denied their humanity by people that they know, work with, or have proximity to. And that is the first stroke of the baton. 

Yet Stony, Tisane, Cleo, and Frankie choose to reject the “grin and bear it” approach that has constantly been hoisted upon Black women by a society that wants to silence and minimise them. In a conversation with the other women in the aftermath of Darnell’s robbery, as they discuss the incident while joking about robbing a bank themselves, Frankie suggests, "Let's just go in there and blow it the fuck up." The rage spreads to even the most unwilling characters as the story progresses. Stony loses her beloved brother Stevie to police brutality after he is confused for Lorenz, one of Darnell’s crew, and she suffers a mental breakdown. Tisane faces a looming custody hearing after her child is taken into state care,  stemming from the fact that she cannot afford a babysitter. With these torrent forces of racism and misogynoir driving them, these women “take away from a system that’s fucking us all anyway” by becoming bank robbers. 

Is bank robbery wrong? Well, yes. In fact, Set It Off doesn’t shy away from the realities of the moral dubiousness of these women’s actions in their descent into the world of crime, nor is it shy in doling out punishment for going on this path. Yet it is deeply satisfying to watch these women, in an uncanny sisterhood of crime, launching an onslaught on these marble caches that represent so much of what is wrong with America’s decaying capitalist society. The women are granted a sense of autonomy. They could take control over their lives.

The more chaotic the situation gets, the more encouraged some characters are – especially Cleo and Frankie, the two most assertive of the group. While the cops close in on them, Frankie suggests they do one last, even more massive and risky heist at Downtown Federal Bank, which Cleo enthusiastically agrees to. In a scene at a restaurant, while planning the details of this heist, the women receive the bill for their food and, one by one, realize that none of them can afford it. Almost symbolic of their acceptance of their new identities, they walk out of the restaurant, one by one, leaving the check unsettled.

In the end, mirroring Lorde’s words, the furies consume them, leaving Frankie, Cleo, and Tisane dead and Stony a fugitive. That’s the thing about anger. It’s a necessary emotion; it signals an unmet need, it is a response to injustice, a catalyst. But you must draw from it and sit with it, or it can destroy you. For people who live at the margins of society, entrenched in this symphony of anger, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for the anger—the hurt—to go. In truth, like the women from Set It Off, many Black women in my life—myself included—have never really been given or developed the tools to constructively deal with the anger that comes with constantly being dehumanised. And then there is the notion that our anger is always supposed to be constructive; only acceptable under specific terms. As Lorde states in her address: “Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning.”

In the hour of her death, when given the option of surrender, and instead Frankie asks Detective Strode, "What is the procedure when the bank is being robbed?" as her screams of defiance finally come to a crescendo, I understand her. When Cleo drives her car head first in the line of fire, I understand her. These women are done with being told how they should be, act, or process their anger; they would rather go out on their own terms. They force the audience to face the violence of the existence that society has handed them, the rage that is part of their inheritance. While many of them did not survive, even in the last moments of their lives, they made the sacrifice so their beloved Stony could have the freedom they all longed for.

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